“Ladies and gentlemen… The Revolution!”
Those are the first words spoken in PURPLE RAIN, and that dude knew what he was talking about. The 1984 rock ‘n roll landmark opens with a bravura 8-minute sequence in which Prince and the Revolution – playing a band called The Revolution led by a musical genius named The Kid – perform “Let’s Go Crazy” at the 1st Avenue & 7th Street Exit. That’s a legendary Minneapolis club that still exists but of course is most famous as the place where Prince got his start. This scene, and this whole movie for that matter, are amazing because they capture Prince at the very height of his genius and his cool, playing what is now known as one of the greatest albums ever, full of classic hit after classic hit… but he’s playing the underdog. At the time it was just “the PURPLE RAIN soundtrack,” released a month before the movie. He’s peak-Prince and yet in this story he’s not blowing away stadiums of religiously devoted fans, as he’d do in real life from that year to today. Instead he’s just one of the acts playing a medium sized club, and not even the favorite of club owner Billy Sparks. Billy says the Kid’s not bringing ’em in like he used to. He’s thinking of dumping him.
(Are you a fucking idiot? Are you hearing this song that he’s playing? What the fuck are you thinking?)
Throughout the song, director Albert Magnoli (STREET KNIGHT) and his co-editor Ken Robinson rhythmically cut in other elements to set the scene: face-painted clubgoers licking each other, chief rival Morris Day preparing to come in and play after him, rolling in with a long coat and driver/assistant Jerome. But this is the only time in the movie where we’ll see Morris’s humble home life. He gets ready in a small, cluttered apartment. Later he brags about a brass waterbed. He’s fronting. The movie is full of little sad details like this, because these are all the people “gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”
Also in this scene is just about my favorite thing in the whole movie, one little shot of Prince arriving at the club as people are lined up out front. He’s all dressed up in his stage clothes, he’s riding his purple motorcycle with sleek custom windshield, and his guitar is strapped to his back. That bike looks like it could be built by the same person as the Adam West Batmobile. Prince has never looked cooler, and no one has ever looked more impressively rock-star than Prince at that moment. Imagine seeing that dude roll up to the club! And there are people there excited to see him, but it’s not pandemonium. Some of those people are probly just thinking “hey, look at that show off.” And he’s just acting like he’s a regular dude going to work. I’m sure he looks the same when he gets groceries.
You know what else is funny? Seeing that rock god go home, and it turns out he lives with his parents. He’s in the basement in a room with alot of candles and harlequin dolls and shit. So if you live in your parents’ basement, or even if you don’t and if anyone ever hurls that insult at you to make you feel like a loser, you tell them that. You know who else lived in his parents’ basement? The motherfuckin Kid. Musical genius.
His parents (played by Clarence Williams III [MANIAC COP 2] and Olga Karlatos [ZOMBIE]), he says, are a “freak show.” They fight. Until watching this again I forgot that “When Doves Cry” is all about them. “She’s never satisfied,” but he’s the real problem. He hits her, and she’s scared to come home sometimes. The Kid’s pissed at his dad, but ends up relating to him. Their problems are too intertwined. His dad, like Prince’s real dad, is also a musician. His failure to make it work as a career hangs over the Kid, as does his bitterness and jealousy. The closest thing to a nice moment is when the Kid comes to confront him about his abuse, but finds him playing a beautiful song on the piano. (“Father’s Song,” actually performed by Prince, was almost included on the soundtrack. I would say it should be on there – along with the song he plays her in his bedroom with the backmasked crying on it – but who the fuck am I to second guess Purple Rain?) They talk about music, an attempt at bonding, but dad insults him and lies to him.
Disturbingly, the line “I would die 4 U” (spelling implied) is something dad says after hitting mom. Even worse, Prince originally wanted them to die in a murder-suicide (instead dad shoots himself but lives). The story adds a dark, fucked-up undercurrent to what in its radio or record context seems like a really romantic song (although it’s already weird for a love song to include the vow “I’ll never beat you,” which in my opinion should go without saying).
That may be the most surprising aspect of the story. Rather than a hagiography, Prince’s own movie portrays him as following in his dad’s abusive footsteps. Right after Apollonia brings him the gift of a beautiful white guitar she tells him she’s joining a band that Morris started, and the Kid slaps her so hard she falls over. It’s not only violent and possessive, it’s mental cruelty too. He refused to help her with her career, but flips out when she settles for her second choice.
It’s made more believable and upsetting by the other scenes where they’re flirtatious and sweet and driving around on the motorcycle together. (And there’s a part where he does a motorcycle jump so I’m pretty sure some lucky stuntman [Brad Orrison?] got to dress up in a Prince outfit.) But he keeps messing with her head. Despite his girly eyeliner he acts like the ultimate meninist hero when he hits Morris with his motorcycle, demands Apollonia get on, and brings her somewhere to forcibly kiss. I don’t know if this is supposed to make him seem dangerous in a bad way or in a sexy way, but it might be the second one considering how irresistible women found him at the time.
Speaking of Morris Day and The Time: imagine the luck of a band as cool and fun as them always having to seem like also-rans to his motherfuckin purple majesty! Their songs are great, but they don’t get to be on the soundtrack. That’s reserved for Prince. To add insult to injury, shots of the crowd doing “The Bird” and dancing to “Jungle Love” are incorporated into the video for “Let’s Go Crazy.” Prince stole their dancers!
Then again, they get to be the funny part of the movie. As in the stage act, Jerome is a ridiculous character because he’s treated like a member of the band but he doesn’t play anything, he’s just Morris’s manservant, to make him seem imporant. Kinda like Lobot to Lando. Morris is a cartoonishly self-obsessed goofball, and gets some choice lines of prickishness, like when he has replaced Prince on the roster and tells him “It’s obvious that you don’t have what it takes to be on top. But to show you we’re sympathetic to your problems, here’s a couple of tickets to tomorrow’s show.”
But there are hints of more going on beneath the surface when his expression changes in private after his most villainous act (a way too cruel taunt about the Kid’s family). There’s enough to tell us that he’s more than the one-dimensional villain he pretends to be. Let’s not give him a medal, though. He literally discards a woman in a garbage dumpster in one scene.
So I guess I should feel more sorry for Dez. Who the fuck is Dez? Exactly. He’s a guy that also plays at the 1st Ave in the movie. “Hey guys, show some respect, I was in PURPLE RAIN.” “What, as one of the extras?” “No, I’m in it. I’m on stage performing.” “Are you Jerome?”
To be fair, even the guys in The Revolution, the actual people on stage performing with Prince, have a hard time not being blinded by his shine. Compounding the problem is the unavoidable fact that the Prince look, much like the turtleneck, is not something that translates well to white guys. Look at poor drummer Bobby Z. here on the right. He looks like a young Jeffrey Jones trying to dress up as Vincent Price. Keyboardist Dr. Fink has the right idea wearing hospital scrubs. It’s comfortable, it’s sanitary, it’s convenient if you have to do a night shift in the ICU after the show. By the way, did you know that in recent years Dr. Fink has made a bunch of collections of horror movie themes for K-Tel Records? That sounds like a dream come true for me, except it’s not him doing his funky versions of the themes from CHILD’S PLAY and LEPRECHAUN, it’s just him doing a cheesy interpolation so they only have to pay for the publishing, not the original recording. Not so much covers as forgeries, along the lines of a CD you might hear playing at Value Village or the Spirit Super Store in October, the one that has “The Monster Mash” and “I Put a Spell On You” and by the time you get to “Thriller” you definitely notice that these are not the original artists.
Fink also has an album called Halloween’s Screeches, Clanks and Howls, featuring “Creaks in the Dark” and “Hits, Stabs & Splats.” So he’s always gonna be cool for his contributions to those great Prince albums and tours, and for creating sound effects to scare trick-or-treaters with, but he can never escape the gigantic shadow of tiny Prince. That goes for anybody in Prince’s/The Kid’s life. He’s beyond us all. You want to find him, follow the trail of the awe-struck and the heart-broken left in his wake.
There’s a great moment at the climax. The Kid has just blown Minneapolis wide open with the first performance of the song “Purple Rain.” They welcomed him with polite applause and then what he gave them was was so good and so moving that even Bobby Sparks teared up and had an intense look like “I am now admitting that I was incredibly, profoundly wrong about this guy and this is the greatest performance I have ever seen in my life and it’s all gonna pale in comparison to this for now on so I am seriously considering walking directly from the club to an active volcano and jumping in.” Since this and many of the songs were really recorded live on this stage (with some overdubs) the performance footage seems very real and is totally riveting to watch. I’d bet at least some of those awe-struck crowd shots are legitimate.
So then the Kid runs off stage and rips through all the halls in back. He’s either exhilarated or about to start smashing everything, you’re not really sure. He finds his motorcycle. It seems like he’s gonna just leave. The crowd is still chanting for him.
Then he feels it – someone behind him. He turns and runs toward her, smiling. But then he realizes that it’s not Apollonia. It’s the blond waitress standing there with tears streaming down her face, even before he awkwardly snubs her. She’s the one who Apollonia first talked to at the club. Who knows if she’s some ex of the Kid’s who thought the song was about her, or an admirer taking a big swing and missing. Either way it’s heartwrenching.
Man, Prince’s music in this movie creates alot of teary eyes. There are many shots of Apollonia watching him, crying. Sometimes it’s because it’s overwhelming. Once because the song (“Darling Nikki,” the founder of the PMRC) is blatantly designed to cruelly taunt her while they’re broken up. This really is a musical. The songs are all about these characters. I forgot that.
The songs were considered more pop and less experimental than the previous five Prince albums, and the impetus for doing a big power ballad was his mystification at the popularity of Bob Seger. But within the movie, The Kid’s victory is about his refusal to compromise. Billy tells him “the stage is no place for personal shit,” but he wins him over by making it more personal than ever. “Purple Rain” is inspired by the music his father refused to share with him and the song that Wendy and Lisa tried to share with him, but he stupidly refused. The lyrics are about the three parties he’s had trouble getting along with: his parents, Apollonia, The Revolution. (And in reality the Apollonia verse could be about Vanity [ACTION JACKSON], who broke up with Prince shortly before the movie, thus being replaced in the role and in the band that was formerly The Vanity 6.)
There’s a sweet moment where he goes over and apologetically kisses Wendy on the cheek, kind of a sheepish “Sorry. You were right. I was an asshole.” She doesn’t really react, and maybe that’s because she noticed that her verse in the song is hardly an apology or an admission of guilt.
“Honey I know, I know, I know times are changing
It’s time we all reach out for something new
That means you too
You say you want a leader
But you can’t seem to make up your mind
I think you better close it
And let me guide you to the purple rain.”
I mean, come on, The Kid. You were definitely being an asshole. You should’ve listened to your friend’s song. You shouldn’t have dodged it by talking to her through a puppet, or yelled “I told you already, I’m not gonna do your stupid music. Now get off it!” And Wendy doesn’t need to make up her mind about shit. You can do better. You can be a better friend than this. You have earned the Wendy & Lisa glare.
So I think this climax might be a little more revealing about Prince than it’s intended to be. He wins over everyone with the sheer, undeniable awesomeness of the song. And in life, his insistence on doing music his own way has done well for him. Refusing to compromise in relationships, I’m not so sure. I’ll have to look up if he’s still with Apollonia.
I’ve watched this a few times over the years and I’ve enjoyed it before, but never like this. This time I loved it. It doesn’t hurt that this is the first time I got to see it in high-definition, which is much more cinematic than the other ways I’ve seen it. When it comes to the home video presentation of this movie, nothing compares 2 blu.
But it’s more than that. At the end of the credits it says “May u live 2 see the dawn,” and I feel the same way about this viewing experience. May u live 2 watch PURPLE RAIN one time where it hits you like this. I was so into it I had to exert effort not to get teary-eyed during “Purple Rain” and embarrass myself. Not because of him learning his lesson and trying to express himself to the people in his life, or because of that great victory, proving himself so hard that even Billy and Morris and Jerome are in the crowd smiling and dancing, but just because god damn that’s a beautiful song.
Here’s a stupid parallel for you. I live in Seattle. We have the Space Needle in Seattle. I’m so close to it I forget about it, except that I’m always dodging tourists taking selfies under it. But every once in a while, including earlier today, I look up and think god damn, look at that thing. Most people don’t live near anything nearly that weird and cool looking. I’m lucky to have it.
And it’s the same way with other beautiful things, and great works of art. You get used to them and you take them for granted. And then every once in a while your eyes and ears are open enough that you just think god damn, Purple Rain. Purple fucking Rain. Can you believe that song exists? Can you believe that we, as a civilization, were allowed to have that weird 26 year old Prince? And all the right things happened that he wrote and recorded that fucking song? And then made a movie that’s one big build to him performing it?
Way 2 go, Prince.
p.s. Shout out to RRA who has been trying to get me to review Prince movies since before they were made
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.